What is the one mistake that change leaders often make?

Lucy Trueman, MD, recounts a time in the beginning of her career when she helped a team to automate part of their invoicing process. She designed a digital tool for them that cut their processing time in half.   After weeks of using the tool, Lucy visited the office and noticed lots of paper invoices laying around and saw that the company had adopted her new system while carrying on with their old, inefficient one.  


What went wrong?

Change was introduced without making the organisation fully aware of the impact of the change itself – what would be different? - and by not planning for the necessary behaviour change, the intended difference didn’t happen.

What did Lucy notice after this?  That this wasn’t a one off!  Ignoring the impact of people’s behaviour was a common mistake within change programmes.


How much consideration are you giving to your culture when embarking on change and transformation?

Culture is a key part of driving any organisational change. Often culture means different things to different people, and this is only apparent when culture is being described. This makes it difficult to pin down. When planning a change programme, the people side of change often gets neglected. Organisations put a lot of time, effort and planning into changes around technology, staffing structures and processes, but often don’t fully consider the impact on their people and culture. These impacts make all the difference for change programmes to succeed. When people talk about culture, they are often only really referring to behaviour, and we need to think wider than this. 


What are the three key mechanisms by which culture is shaped and messages are communicated?

1) How do they behave?

2) Symbols and rituals

3) Systems and processes



Why behaviour. This is probably the most obvious aspect of culture. Take a look around your organisation and consider what behaviours you see. Observe your staff, managers and senior leaders. Observe your customers or/and partners. Ask yourself:

  • How do they behave?
  • Are people supportive of, or resistant to, change?
  • What messages are your hearing and seeing?



So, what are symbols and rituals in the workplace? These are the parts of behaviour and ways of working that are so ingrained in the working environment that they become rituals; automatic behaviours. These often go unquestioned, as they are just accepted as ways of working. What does a ritual in the workplace look like? This can be as simple as a regular departmental meeting, always the same duration held on the same day each week. Again, observe your people:

  • What can you see happening that is repeated without question?
  • Is this a risk for the change process?


Systems and Processes

Systems and processes are put in place to create outcomes but they can drive behaviour and, in turn, drive culture in unintended ways. This can be particularly prevalent in larger organisations that rely heavily on processes and structures and are often a blind spot for leaders. How? Often leaders want people to behave in one way by implementing standard processes but, because there is no communication around what needs to be different and why, it can inadvertently drive behaviours the opposite way. You know that common phrase “what gets measured gets done”? Well, it certainly is true in this case. It’s important to reflect critically and holistically on the impact systems and processes have in your organisation.

What do we need to consider to make change programmes successful?

  • Think a bit deeper into what the impact really will be
  • Consider what mitigations need to put into place to make sure it is a success
  • Plan comms activity to engage with stakeholders ensuring understanding of what needs to be different


What steps can we take?

Step 1: Review 

First, spend some time answering the above questions about your organisation as it is now. Capture some thoughts about each of the headings and start to describe what you see in your organisation. You can do this alone, or with trusted colleagues. It works well to do this with a mix of people around the organisation who you trust to give you honest feedback, and often an external person to facilitate and challenge can be helpful. Complete the template below based on your initial thoughts. 

Step 2: The future 

Now critically reflect on your thoughts so far, through the lens of the change you want to make happen. Ask yourself:

  • What might be the unintended consequences of these?
  • Will this help to get to the change I want to see?
Step 3: Make a plan 

Finally, as you come across examples where your culture is not aligned with what you are trying to achieve in the future, make a plan of what steps you can take to fix this. This is the hard bit of driving change - taking action! You need to tackle every contradiction you have identified, as each of these will undermine your change programme in some way. The difference between change programmes that succeed and those that fail is the action taken to make a difference. Make a clear list of steps you need to take and allocate resources to these to make sure they happen.

Step 4: Look in the mirror 

Often when people describe culture they are talking about something separate from themselves, an entity in its own right. In reality culture is shaped by all of us, every day, intentionally or not. The final step in the process is to think hard about what you have done today to shape culture, and what you intend to do tomorrow! How will you impact the culture as a leader? What rituals, symbols and behaviours are you demonstrating?


At Trueman Change we use two simple tools in all our change programmes:

  • Shaping Culture: Behaviours, Systems and Symbols
  • Simply asking “what will be different?”

Good leadership that considers culture and the impact of organisational behaviour will enable change to happen faster, more cost effectively, and more compassionately.

If your organisation is going through change and transformation and you’d like to sense check how ready you are for change, try our Change Readiness and get your Change Readiness Report emailed back to you within a few minutes.

If you want to understand more about culture mapping and how you can enable positive change amongst your people, then we’re here to help.

Book a call to find out how we can help you and head to our case studies section to find examples of our work. 

By Lydia Davey | 25th March 2022

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